Creating a Path for the Future of Higher Education through a Structured Approach for Interdisciplinary Teaching

Mountain path leading to landscape

Rain in the forecast: Look for an umbrella

For the past few years, we have been informed and warned about the impending decline in higher education enrollments.  This is no longer a hypothetical projection, as there are growing indications that within the next few years we may be witnessing the closure of smaller colleges, which could have social and economic consequences. While the current pandemic might have distracted us from the inevitability of the forthcoming changes, we need to urgently consider academic initiatives to safeguard higher education as we continue to provide our students with access to knowledge and skills that will help them shape their future, and in turn shape the future of the country.  It is time to look “inside the box” and explore solutions to this crisis in a meaningful, methodical, and focused manner.  Specifically, I am proposing the development of interdisciplinary courses that will address these needs without compromising the integrity of disciplines; courses that are innovative, impactful, and of intellectual, practical, and vocational value. The challenges before us require initiatives from multiple directions. Sadly, the possibility for collaborative, academically-guided solutions are often ignored.

Goals of the interdisciplinary teaching initiative

Methodically planned and constructed interdisciplinary courses can offer opportunities to strengthen our colleges and universities and our mission as educators, and can potentially address a wide variety of needs.  Here are some of the practical and aspirational goals for such collaborations.

  1. To create a meaningful and efficient method of educating our students and promoting understanding about the interconnectedness of diverse disciplines and the applications that emerge from such understanding
  2. To offer distinctive, unique courses that will draw students to our institutions
  3. To approach the questions and concerns about diversity and inclusivity through interdisciplinary collaborations, live and in-person, in the classroom
  4. To protect higher education, hence, safeguarding our civilization
  5. To create opportunities for fundraising and grant writing

A model for developing of interdisciplinary courses

Interdisciplinary courses can potentially accelerate the formation of new ideas, concepts, and viewpoints whose interactions are likely to generate a synergy of unique perspectives that could in turn offer innovative solutions to, for example, pressing social and technological problems. When methodically planned, two diverse disciplines may tackle a problem with combined resources that one alone may not possess. Conversations about inclusivity could have a different depth when we combine sociology with literature and communication.

The development of interdisciplinary courses needs to be approached methodically and with foresight, and not in terms of putting together a potpourri of courses.  We often think of the Boyer Model as applicable to the process of promotion and tenure. There is, however, much more to this model. The essence of Boyer’s thinking was to promote a balance between the “discovery of knowledge” and “application of knowledge” and to bring greater attention to the importance and necessity of higher education. “…America’s colleges and universities are now suffering from a decline in public confidence,” Boyer suggested,  “and a nagging feeling that they are no longer at the vital center of the nation’s work.” [1] Such a sentiment has gained greater gravity in today’s world. Does the acquisition of a set of skills require college education, as some have suggested?  Perhaps not, but the integration of skills, and the critical thinking necessary for such integration requires assimilation of knowledge from various perspectives through the guidance and mentorship of faculty from diverse disciplines. Such an opportunity exists on college campuses yet is often ignored or underutilized.

The seemingly disparate and even erroneously conceptualized as “unequal” dimensions of Boyer’s Model offer the potential for their integration (Fig. 1). This model, hence, can be used for developing interdisciplinary courses and a sound curriculum.

Figure 1: The Boyer Model of Scholarship

Building a bridge between diverse disciplines

The scholarships of Discovery and Integration for example can be brought together to form a cohesive method of developing new courses that are meaningful and attractive to diverse populations. For example, the study of memory can connect neuroscience with psychology, literature, and the arts. Memory is a complex aspect of humanity, which reaches out to history, anthropology, and archeology.  Two or more disciplines can come together to develop courses that combine the scholarships of discovery and integration and/or teaching to explore the role of memory in our relationships, in social and political settings, and indeed in all human transactions.

Figure 2: Integration of the Four Dimensions

The legitimate, nevertheless infuriating, question, “In exchange for four years of education and an often considerable sum of money, exactly what does your institution provide?” [2]  can be addressed by this model by demonstrating how interdisciplinary thinking and learning will have meaningful and at times immediate applications. The disciplines of Discovery and Teaching and Application, for example, can be brought together to address issues with regard to public health, public policy, and crime prevention. This may require at least partially interacting in social settings outside the confines of the physical classroom, in the classroom of life.

In other words, the four seemingly disconnected corners can be brought together to form an organic, interdependent whole, feeding and guiding each other (Fig. 2).  Enhanced communication among disciplines could be an inevitable outcome of such integration. A handful of courses that can demonstrate such interconnections can, by themselves, showcase and promote various disciplines as well as higher, critical thinking. Ultimately, to promote and maintain a just and progressive society requires dialogue and interdisciplinary collaboration. This model can act as a role-model—a source of guidance and inspiration—for such an endeavor.

Other potential benefits of the interdisciplinary teaching initiative

As it was mentioned earlier, a faculty member may be able to address issues of diversity and inclusivity within a discipline through a single lens, whereas the interactions between two faculty members from two different disciplines addressing a similar concern from diverse perspectives, by itself, will open new doors for a deeper conversation about the meaning of inclusivity and diversity. Such a dialogue can also explore why or how such concerns might have been neglected in certain disciplines and how to offer constructive remedies. That is, not quick solutions, but thoughtful acknowledgments and interventions.

By studying ethics through an interdisciplinary lens, our students can gain a deeper understanding of the perennial concerns regarding scientific discoveries and technological advancements and their application in, and impact on, social or global settings. In other words, the broader the perspective, the deeper the dialogue, which will lead to a more meaningful approach toward problem solving.

Conclusion

We need a handful of interdisciplinary courses to begin this initiative and to provide the groundwork for attracting students to our colleges and universities and by building a more efficient and integrated system for acquiring knowledge, understanding, and wisdom about life, self, and others, which will directly affect career pursuits. Developing interdisciplinary courses can also open the door for collaborative grant writing and pursuing funds from local and national, and perhaps even international, foundations. Ultimately, by becoming more open to interdisciplinary thinking we can, as we must, find ways to protect and safeguard higher education and its fundamental values, which form a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts.  Demographics may be major contributing factors to the challenges ahead, but they do not need to determine our destiny so long as we continue to explore innovative solutions collaboratively.

To look within is a step in the right direction.  

Look at the various disciplines on your campus and explore the interdisciplinary opportunities for collaboration; not only when it is obvious but, and especially, when it demands challenging, innovative thinking. In the end, “…all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” [3]


Micah Sadigh is a professor of psychology at Cedar Crest College.

References

[1] Boyer, E. L. (2016).  The scholarship of engagement. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 20, 15-17.

[2] Beyond the inflection point: Reimagining Business Models for Higher Education, p. 9 https://www.acenet.edu/Documents/Beyond-the-Inflection-Point-Reimagining-Business-Models-for-Higher-Education.pdf

[3] Spinoza, The Ethics